A champion of diversity, Stephen Walker talks about the value of inclusion and engaging employees through respect.
Tell us about the work you do at Workforce Strategies.
When I left the public service, I wanted to get back to doing the stuff I really enjoyed in the HR space: having a personal impact on individuals, whether through one-on-one coaching, facilitation and workshops, or consulting.
The work I do is rooted in personal experience – I don’t like going into any work with an off-the-shelf product. I get a great sense of fulfillment from helping people find their own solution and working with them to achieve growth.
I’m working with a number of organisations and managers currently grappling with resilience as a direct result of the GFC.
I’m running resilience workshops for both managers and staff, but I’m also working with individuals through executive coaching who are facing particular hardships in the current environment.
Its a two-edged sword in many ways: its great that there is a recognition by some that learning to be resilient is important; but at the same time its a shame that the environment has lead to so many people struggling at the moment.
How has your broad career influenced your consultancy work?
I tend to say that I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up. I started out as a TV cameraman and spent four years covering the news, then I went back to school and did the HSC.
I joined the Australian Federal Police (AFP) as a cop in the eighties.
Over the years, I’ve worked in five government agencies in policy and strategy roles, and as head of HR for three agencies, including the AFP.
During that time, I came to realise that you can steer the direction of an organisation from HR.
I’ve also taught English in Japan and worked as a diplomat in Bangkok with AusAID.
You were on the Diversity Awards panel. How did you become involved in this area?
Back when I was a police officer, I was studying sociology at university part-time and I wrote a piece on women in the force.
When I published their stories, I was ostracised by some of my male colleagues, which prompted me to leave and start the rest of my journey. I was also moved by my time in TV around the initial outbreak of HIV.
When I worked in the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, I had a fantastic diversity team, and that’s when I was first asked to talk at conferences.
When I moved back into the AFP after the 2007 election, there was a commitment to change the profiling of women and Indigenous Australians, so I had some funds to invest in inclusion programs.
The AFP has always been a strong advocate for LGBTI staff and the wider community, so from there I pushed to develop a comprehensive diversity program, inclusive of LGBTI, older people, women and Indigenous Australians.
It was a great opportunity for me, having come full circle from my earlier role as an officer to holding a position where I had a bit of clout.
What are the keys to creating an effective inclusion policy?
I’m nervous that the GFC is seeing some contraction of inclusion programs as a ‘nice to have’. There doesn’t need to be a cost outlay, but there are cost benefits. If there is expenditure or time involved, then you just look at the results.
In Australia, $42 billion in income is lost each year due to lack of engagement and productivity.
When your staff members are engaged, you don’t have to worry about absenteeism or turnover. Having a system of respect means everybody benefits, but it has to be built on trust, and from the ground up – not to win awards or tick a box.
It has to be flexible, and it must be championed by the CEO. Leaders need to recognise that in times of economic downturn, diversity is the way to innovation.
You now work as a mentor; have you been mentored yourself?
I haven’t had a formal mentor, but I did have Andrew Wood, who was my supervisor when I took on my first senior executive role in HR.
The thing that struck me was that on my first day Andrew asked me, ‘So where do you want to be, and what do you want to do?’
He was the sort of mentor I admire – he’d never give me the answer, he’d ask the right question at just the right time. I’ve tried to emulate this in my own coaching and life.